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Sat Nov 17, 2012, 05:15 PM

Lincoln's other legacy.

How Lincoln settled the West
WESTCLIFFE — All across the West they stand forlorn and forgotten. Many have tumbledown roofs, sagging walls, gaping doors. Yet these modest 10-by-12-foot homestead cabins represent a revolution in public-land policy, an American dream born of Thomas Jefferson’s belief that we should become a nation of farmers.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Homestead Act, the federal law that changed the West forever and provided a new start for urban emigrants, immigrant families and single women.

I grew up on a former homestead in southeast Colorado of 160 acres, a rectangle bisected diagonally by the Amity Ditch. I attended high school on the High Plains, the short grass prairie of songbirds, raptors, jackrabbits, grama grass, and a view as far as the eye can see. Farms and ranches across Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico had all been homesteaded as were farms in the Dakotas and eastern Oregon and Washington.

This year the Homestead Act, passed by Congress during the Civil War, celebrates one of the great private land opportunities in world history. Only a young, brawny nation such as the United States would give away free land.

http://www.cortezjournal.com/article/20121116/COLUMNISTS23/121119931/-1/News01

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Reply Lincoln's other legacy. (Original post)
bluedigger Nov 2012 OP
Marta Steele Dec 2012 #1
Bucky Jan 2013 #2
Democracyinkind Feb 2013 #3
Bucky Feb 2013 #4

Response to bluedigger (Original post)

Sat Dec 8, 2012, 10:57 AM

1. no resistance? Just empty acres?

one of the great private land opportunities in world history"? Uh, wasn't anyone else there? Does not this country sit uneasily upon the bones and blood of countless Native Americans?

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Response to Marta Steele (Reply #1)

Thu Jan 3, 2013, 10:45 PM

2. It's a pretty glaring omission.

As a history teacher, I'm constantly warning my kids against applying contemporary moral standards to assessing behaviors to past societies. But that said, it's irresponsible to ignore the historical fact of the conquest of the Indian nations in the settling of the west. It also sells the audience short to ignore the larger strategic issues in the construction of the Transcontinental. It kept California and Oregon in the Union in an age of disunion (the law was passed in second year of the war). It insured that the Great Plains would be culturally American and not subject to incursions by Britain and Mexico. It also created in just a few years both billions of dollars in taxable wealth for ordinary citizens without capital to acquire it by AND it perpetuated for several generations a historically unique middle class of businessmen-export farmer unprecedented in the story of humanity, which became the foundation of the laborer middle class that has sustained liberal democracy for the last 150 years.

The land giveaway of the Transcontinental Railroad changed history in ways that dwarf the impact of anything else Lincoln did, including winning the war and ending slavery. Slavery was going to end within a few generations anyway. It wasn't economically sustainable. The American Indians were going to be pushed off their land anyway, although the Transcontinental Railroad probably accelerated that fact and the Homestead Act made sure there was political pressure to get it done as brutally as possible. Had development of the west been left to the private sector--meaning large corporations--the process may have taken an addition 50 years and the west would be filled up with company towns, not independent landowners and shopkeepers. The cost was heavy and unjust, but the results were in the long run better for democracy.

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Response to Bucky (Reply #2)

Thu Feb 7, 2013, 01:18 PM

3. I once thought about writing a Master's thesis about the connection between TCR and the Civil War


It is still my hope that one day I'll have the time and the funding to do it, even as private project. I first noticed that the TCR was quite directly connected to the Civil War while reading congressional debates during Bleeding Kansas. Come to think of it, a project about control of TCR routes and the origins of the Kansas-Nebraska act would be quite interesting in itself.

Just something I thought about while reading your thoughtful reply.

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Response to Democracyinkind (Reply #3)

Thu Feb 7, 2013, 04:09 PM

4. Yep, there's lots of connections. Lincoln did a lot of work for the RRs in Illinois.

He's probably second only to Washington in being shaped by the quest for western presperity. I'm not much on academic trends, but I remember figuratively slapping my forehead when I read Ambrose's book in the railroad and he talked about how the experience in managing large armies in the field prepared the leaders of the TCRR in organizing the crews to build the railroads.

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